It is no secret that the political strategy of America’s public employee unions, funding the campaigns of state legislators who uncritically pass compensation packages, work rules, and mandates favoring their members, now threatens the solvency of California, Illinois, Rhode Island, and many other states. A recent study by researchers at Boston College for the Wall Street Journal found that, in spite of cutbacks forced by the recession, the cumulative underfunding of retirement promises alone will cost taxpayers an estimated $800 billion.
Sadly, the damage inflicted by the state-level influence of public employee unions has not been limited to finance. Over recent decades a growing number of mandates and restrictions, passed by state legislatures at the behest of public employee unions, have turned the American tradition of local autonomy into little more than a nostalgic illusion. As far back as 1980, then-New York City mayor Ed Koch wrote an article for the policy journal Public Interest warning of the growing state encroachment on municipal decision making. It was aptly titled “The Mandate Millstone.”
In 2006, when the Connecticut Business and Industry Association interviewed the top administrative and financial officers from 21 communities across the state to find out how mandates legislated in Hartford were affecting towns and cities, they found that most felt effectively marginalized from local policymaking. Their responses were typified by one survey participant’s respond: “Mandates pre-empt local authority by replacing local goals with state priorities and preventing local government from determining the best way to meet their citizen’s needs and spend their local tax dollars.”
Three years ago, a taxpayer group that I belong to in the small town of Redding, Connecticut, Nonpartisan Action for a Better Redding, asked a group of residents with business or other financial experience to spend a year conducting a line-by-line audit of local expenditures. The goal was to find ways to reduce the town budget, which had been skyrocketing well in excess of the rate of inflation, by 10 percent without compromising the quality of services.
The target was achieved, at least on paper, by suggesting the adoption of such policies as having high school students take one of their five classes every semester online, pooling services with neighboring towns, using qualified volunteers to audit employment and benefits records, and hiring low-cost graduate students from local colleges as teacher aides – all implemented through the unforced attrition of current personnel.
Local officials and civic groups, however, were reluctant to act on our findings. In some instances, they argued, we had not really figured a way through Connecticut’s statutory minefield – at least, not to their way of thinking. But even in the majority of cases where our recommendations were admittedly legal, they still feared retaliation from public employee unions. About all the town fathers and mothers thought they could do to control the ever-escalating budget was have animal control share kennel space with a neighboring municipality and rearrange municipal business hours to save on heat.
During the year that our taxpayer group dissected the local budget, many of us made an effort to identify any cost-saving measures that might have been adopted in other parts of the country. There were not a large number, but the ones we did discover seemed so commonsensical – and if widely adopted, so worthwhile – that we described them in an opinion piece, which the Wall Street Journal published in late October. We also posted these cost saving measure to a website (www.SmartTowns.org). If Redding could not bring itself to enact promising budget reforms, we reasoned, surely there were other communities, perhaps less affluent ones in redder states, that would be grateful for the information.
Yet the responses to the op-ed, at least as indicated by online comments to the Journal and emails to our website, were disturbingly similar. “Ha, ha,” wrote one respondent. “This is truly one of the funniest and saddest articles I have read online in a while. Sad because [it] proves that there are lots of ways to keep government spending from spiraling out of control. Downright hilarious trying to imagine these proposals being considered.”
“Great ideas that will never be implemented,” wrote another, “for the simple reason public service unions will vigorously oppose each and every proposal, and target those politicians bold enough, should any exist, to even step forward with any.”
How does one explain such pervasive pessimism except to recognize that the influence of public employee unions over localities is as much psychological as it is financial? When, in 2000, the Minnesota legislature took the unusual step of asking its auditor to survey the impact of state mandates on towns and cities, municipal officials responded that their greatest problem was not any particular law, but the general enervating effect of “the state not treating local government as partners.”
Much of this sense of powerlessness at the grass roots stems from layers of rules and regulations aimed directly at padding public employment, inflating benefits, limiting the ability of municipalities to take advantage of cost-saving innovation, and restricting the use of both community volunteers and private contractors. Connecticut, for instance, has a statute that prevents towns from reducing their annual school budgets, even if the student population is clearly declining.
But equally demoralizing for towns, school districts, and counties has been the persistent unwillingness of state legislators to recognize and address the serious conflicts of interest that permit public employees to assert a disproportionate influence over local boards and civic institutions.
In affluent suburbs, for example, the union leadership has become remarkably adept at advancing its own interests by effectively bribing a segment of the community with taxpayer subsidies. Parents who sit on boards of education and finance have learned that accommodating the desires of unionized personnel means that a wide range of non-academic perks for the exclusive benefit of their children will be deemed sufficiently “educational” to justify sharing the cost with all property tax payers.
These include low-cost forms of day care, both before and after school, expensive and eclectic sports programs, holiday “socials,” low-cost summer camps run out of public school buildings, and a variety of school-day distractions for students, such as pottery and ballet lessons, cafeteria pasta bars, and media centers with state-of-the-art video equipment – all purchased with revenue from voters without children, voters with grown children, and those who educate their children privately or at home.
In cities, the conflict comes from state-funded subsidies to a variety of self-appointed civil rights organizations, which in turn are expected to have representatives of public employee unions on their boards.
Consider the fact that for years, polls of poor and minority parents have consistently demonstrated support for some form of school choice. Most recently, a 2011 survey by the journal Education Next and the Harvard Program on Education and Policy Governance found that 60 percent of Hispanic parents and 53 percent of African Americans favor publicly-funded vouchers for private schooling. The same poll found that 57 percent of both parent groups favor academic credit for courses delivered over the Internet.
Yet where are the marches and movements to implement such reforms – reforms that no Democrat-controlled legislature could deny if promoted under the banner of civil rights? Where are the cheerleaders from community organizations that do manage to appear, as they did in Chicago last summer, when unionized teachers decide to strike for more pay?
The answer was made clear to me some years ago when I helped to organize a school reform conference at Trinity College in Hartford. One of the attendees, a young mother who worked as the secretary to the director of a state-funded Hispanic group, came up to me excitedly and said she wanted to arrange for me to meet her boss to review some of the innovative policies discussed that day.
A few weeks passed and, not hearing back from the secretary, I decided to call her boss myself. He seemed quite knowledgeable about school issues, and for nearly an hour we had a spirited conversation about the relative advantages of charter schools versus school vouchers for poor Hispanic families. Unfortunately, he informed me at the end of the call, there were two representatives from the state teachers union on his board, and there was nothing he could do to advance either alternative without losing his job.
Fiscal reality is finally forcing some states to curtail the influence of public employee unions, at least when it comes to salaries, pensions, and post-retirement perks. But genuine reform will require politicians to give as much thought to liberating their own localities as they are to trimming worker benefits.
The real threat to the future of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville once warned, is not a heavy-handed tyrant but “a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and energetic characters cannot penetrate ….” And then he added philosophically that free people are brought to heel not when they are forced to act, but when they “are constantly restrained from acting.”